After taking another look at Pacific Rim and the genre that inspired it, I came to realise I hadn’t seen any new mecha anime around recently. It struck me as odd, as when I was in middle school, you couldn’t turn around a corner without coming face to face with a new giant robot. Mecha, it seems, has gone out of fashion. It made me wonder if this change was a permanent thing, or if the mecha genre will make another rise in a few years and we’ll all enjoy the giant robots enough to make us sick once again. Looking back on the history of anime to do some research, I found a certain pattern in the popularity.
The term ‘anime’ itself refers to all animation that comes from Japan, and by that definition, anime has been in production since the early 1910’s. It has been used as war propaganda, commercials, and educational films. Unlike the large budget that goes into Western animation, production of anime in Japan suffered under limited conditions. It wasn’t until the 60’s, with the emergence of series like Astro Boy and the success of Toei Animation studios, that the familiar style of anime we recognise today came about.
Since then, it has seemed as though every few years, certain genres tend to go in and out of fashion. Trends hit highs and they hit lows, and a genre that had several successful series five years ago may have only a few now.
When the regular anime series seemed to hit its rhythm, the first few genres that emerged as the most popular were those in the realm of science fiction. In the eighties, one of the first new genres that came to attention was the space opera, no doubt in part inspired by the success of Star Wars. Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam were two of the most popular and recognisable anime of the time. The former is often cited as being the first space opera anime, and was reworked several times over the course of the eighties to further capitalise on the genre’s success.
In the nineties, anime changed seeming to carry a lighter, younger feel. This was partially as the darker, more controversial anime such as Cowboy Bebop and Neon Genesis Evangelion were being edited and censored. In addition, the era followed the international success of Akira, and more people were watching anime across the world. This also meant that it was the anime suited for Western Saturday morning cartoons that had great success, such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Digimon. It is also thanks to Sailor Moon that the following ten years saw the rise of the magical girl, a genre that had always been around but rarely saw such success. In the aftermath of Sailor Moon came Cardcaptor Sakura, Shugo Chara, Pretty Cure and the like. The genre even reached around the globe to other nations of animation, such as France’s W.I.T.C.H. novels and Italy’s popular animated series Winx Club.
Following this lighter trend, anime took another turn for the dark. Evangelion inspired another round of the mecha subgenre, with series like Eureka Seven and Code Geass using religion and imperialism as backdrops. Dragon Ball Z was replaced by Fullmetal Alchemist, and the most popular and well-known anime of the time was Death Note – so popular that its influence still lingers on to this day.
In recent years, the trend seems to be a balance between light and dark. Take the summer of 2013, when the two anime most talked about were Attack on Titan and Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club. One is a gritty, bloody, post-apocalyptic story filled with death and disturbing imagery. The other is a fun, light-hearted, sports anime where the saddest thing to happen is a character can’t swim in an upcoming race. Yet both series are equally as popular, influential, and seem to share a lot of the same fans. The current trend seems to be taking things to the extreme – no matter if the extreme is controversial and dark, or silly and raunchy, or an extreme sports match.
Why does it happen this way? Why do styles of anime go out and come in, like changing fashion trends? It simply depends on what the audience wants. Seeing too much of one thing makes a person sick of it, and after a time the collective public longs for something new. The mecha genre is not popular now. Eureka Seven AO, the sequel to the ever-popular mecha Eureka Seven, was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. But there has been a time before when mecha wasn’t popular, and there will be a time when it makes another roaring return. The same goes for any of your favourite genres. If you haven’t been noticing them recently, sit back. Give them some time. Like the shoulder pads, they’ll be back.